The economy, taxes, spending, health care, and bailouts dominate the headlines and Tea Party rallies this year. But just beneath the surface, another issue is helping shape the midterm elections: abortion.
The Tea Party insurgency catapulting anti-bailout, anti-Obamacare, and anti-tax hike Republican outsiders past their establishment-backed primary rivals is also helping to eliminate pro-choice Republicans. Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, the pro-choice money is flowing in.
Lisa Murkowski, Mike Castle, Charlie Crist and Arlen Specter are the four highest-profile victims of the Tea Party insurgency. All four were pro-choice, with particularly contentious records on abortion. All four lost to staunch pro-lifers.
Murkowski might have been done in by abortion. Driving much of the turnout on primary day in Alaska was a ballot initiative requiring parental notification before an abortion. Murkowski endorsed the initiative, but her opponent Joe Miller was loudly and firmly pro-life, while Murkowski's abortion record is mixed, including Senate votes declaring that Roe v. Wade was rightly decided.
Crist also has a mixed record on abortion. He described himself as pro-choice until his Senate bid, and conservatives, including Marco Rubio, questioned his newfound pro-life views. Since Crist left the GOP, he's dropped the pretense, even vetoing a bill requiring ultrasound tests before abortions.
Castle's stunning loss to Christine O'Donnell in Delaware was mostly about economic issues, including Castle's 2008 vote for the Wall Street bailout and general disdain for the Washington establishment. But Castle was also vocally pro-choice. While he voted for the bill banning partial-birth abortion, he first backed an amendment that would have gutted the ban with an open-ended “health” exception. Pro-life groups called this a “sham ban.”
And while Specter wasn't actually defeated by a Tea Party candidate, movement activist Sen. Jim DeMint helped set in motion Specter's demise and the nomination of pro-life conservative Pat Toomey. Specter switched parties in April 2009, after a poll showed him badly losing his Republican primary to Toomey, who was endorsed by DeMint. Specter then lost his Democratic primary.
While Toomey hasn't always been a pro-lifer, abortion drove much of the pro-Toomey passion in his 2004 challenge to Specter. Back then, Specter was in line to head the Senate Judiciary Committee, in charge of confirming Supreme Court nominees. But conservatives remembered that Specter, staunchly pro-choice, had sunk the high-court nomination of Robert Bork, citing fears that Bork would overturn Roe v. Wade. Specter later called Roe, a famously muddled ruling, “inviolate.”
In 2010, abortion certainly isn't the driving factor behind Tea Parties, but the Tea Party's Senate lineup is 100 percent pro-life. Every insurgent GOP Senate candidate who bucked the establishment to win the nomination — Miller, Rubio, O'Donnell, Toomey, Ken Buck in Colorado, Sharron Angle in Nevada, and Mike Lee in Utah — is dedicated to the pro-life cause. The Senate ringleader of this rowdy bunch is DeMint, a passionate pro-life conservative. The only establishment pick to survive the Tea Party surge this fall was Kelly Ayotte in New Hamphire, whose name was on that state's lawsuit attempting to undo some Supreme Court precedent protecting abortion.
On the Democratic side, abortion plays a different role, not providing votes and energy but giving a big boost to fundraising.
In August, the pro-choice PAC Emily's List raised $430,000 for its special independent-expenditure PAC, with 80 percent of that money coming from four donors. According to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, pro-choice groups including Emily's List have given $2.2 million to candidates so far in this election cycle. The $1.4 million that Emily's List has given to candidates in this cycle is more than twice the total from the National Rifle Association.
The Tea Party's issues have some fairly obvious overlaps with the pro-life cause — for instance, Obamacare's subsidization of abortion — but mostly taxes and deficits seem unrelated to unborn babies, making it tough to explain why Tea Partiers and pro-lifers are so closely aligned.
But on Capitol Hill, the divide between fiscally conservative and socially conservative is a theoretical one. Almost without fail, the strongest advocates of limited government in Congress are pro-life, and vice-versa. Think of DeMint and Tom Coburn in the Senate and Ron Paul and Jeff Flake in the House — they top the scorecards of the National Taxpayers' Union and also have perfect scores from National Right to Life.
Anger about bailouts and Obamacare and concern about deficits have powered this year's conservative surge, but below the surface is also anger about abortion and concern for unborn babies.
Timothy P.Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on ExaminerPolitics.com.